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Indigenous heritage items in overseas collections

One of the key issues in reconciliation work is the fact that the earliest historic material culture from North American Indigenous nations resides in museums and other repositories overseas. Collections from the 17th, 18th and early 19thcenturies were sent, or taken, to Royal families, wealthy patrons, private collections and the earliest museums in the UK, Europe and beyond. In the 1600s, for instance, items were sent by Indigenous people to Britain as part of diplomatic exchanges as well as taken by British officers after military conquests. The earliest quillwork and garments from North America became part of private collections which became absorbed into early museums and are now at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, Canterbury Cathedral, the British Museum, and a host of smaller museums across the UK. The Louvre collections, now at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, the Vatican Museum in Rome, and other museums across Europe also hold 17th and 18th century items from Indigenous nations.

[Detail, quillwork ornament, Bargrave collection, Canterbury Cathedral. This ornament was in England by 1673. Photograph by Laura Peers.]

These items are often very difficult to find. Until recently, few museums overseas held collections online; most do now, but not all, and records and images are often scanty. For a recent contract with Arts Council England, I compiled a list of over 50 institutions in the UK which hold North American heritage items.

Some of these institutions are represented on digital portals such as the Reciprocal Research Network, based at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, or GRASAC, a Great Lakes-oriented portal. There are also emerging online guides to collections such as Restoring Ancestral Collections, and individual nations are compiling their own digital records of heritage items held globally.

Complicating this dispersal and lack of access is the fact that many items have lost the information they came into collections with. In the 1800s, dealers in ethnographic items in the UK purchased many Indigenous items that had been brought back by fur traders, for instance. Information about the community of origin for such items was almost never recorded when such transactions occurred, so while the objects exist now (indeed, some have been sold to North American museums), we have to make informed guesses based on comparative analysis and Indigenous knowledge to begin to restore such crucial contextual information. Smaller museums in the UK and Europe often lack specialist knowledge to identify such ‘lost’ objects, so they remain either unidentified or have incorrect information attached to them.

We have a great deal of work to do—together, from all cultural and scholarly backgrounds—to identify such items and make them able to be useful and meaningful in the present and future.

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